Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Baseball [Print without images]

Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Sadly, one play defined Merkle's career, life

By Ed Sherman
Special to ESPN.com

WATERTOWN, Wis. -- Fred Merkle was born in Watertown, Wis., in 1888, but he spent only one year there before his family moved to Toledo, Ohio.

Still, that didn't prevent Watertown resident David Stalker from claiming Merkle as the town's very own. He spearheaded an effort to erect a monument in Merkle's honor.

Set in black marble with a baseball perched on top, the monument notes that Merkle was a "potent line-drive hitter and agile first-baseman." It says he was a member of six World Series teams.

However, there is no mention on the monument of the play that earned Merkle a spot in baseball infamy. The inscription boasts of Merkle's "intelligence" on the field, seemingly a contradiction for a player whose nickname was "Bonehead."

"We want the average person to see Fred Merkle for who he really was," Stalker said. "There was much more to his career than just one play."

Yet as Bill Buckner discovered in the cruelest way possible, one play can define a career. Prior to Buckner and the ball-between-the-legs grounder that ended Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, there was Merkle, the goat of goats.

Fred Merkle
Fans along Coogan's Bluff watch the Chicago Cubs and New York Giants at the Polo Grounds on Sept. 23, 1908.

Tuesday marks the 100th anniversary of the play that forever cemented Merkle's legacy in baseball. The Chicago Cubs and New York Giants were locked in a dramatic pennant race when they met on Sept. 23, 1908.

With the game tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth, Merkle, who had singled, was on first base and Moose McCormick was on third. With two outs, Al Bridwell then hit an apparent single to drive in McCormick with what seemed the winning run.

It looked to be a huge victory for the Giants, and jubilant fans mobbed the field at the Polo Grounds. But in the commotion, Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers noticed Merkle never touched second base.

Evers frantically waved for the ball, and there's considerable dispute about whether he actually got the game ball. Evers then stepped on second and umpire Hank O'Day called Merkle out on a force, thus nullifying the Giants' run. Keep in mind, this was the same umpire who let a similar play stand up when a base runner didn't touch second at the conclusion of a game earlier in the month.

Despite O'Day's ruling, the game couldn't go on because of all the fans on the field, and it was declared a 1-1 tie. Merkle's nightmare then was compounded when the Cubs and Giants finished the regular season tied. The Cubs won the one-game playoff to win the pennant, propelling them to their last World Series title.

Merkle, who was only 19 at the time, was vilified. The Sporting News, the game's official bible back then, wrote of "the stupidity of Fred Merkle." Newspapers quickly labeled him "Bonehead."

Merkle went on to become a decent player during a 16-year career, finishing with a .273 average. He had 49 stolen bases in 1911, an impressive total considering he was 6-foot and 190 pounds.

Yet Merkle never seemed to get over the top. He was on the losing side of six World Series. When he was blamed for a botched popup that helped cost the Giants the 1912 World Series, the headlines blared, "Bonehead Merkle does it again."

"Sometimes it looks like the Cubs and Merkle got jinxed at the same time," Stalker said.

That day in 1908 forever haunted Merkle and his family. After he retired and moved the family to Daytona Beach, Fla., his daughter came home from school and asked why the kids were calling her "Bonehead."

Once a visiting minister in his church began by saying, "I want to begin by admitting an ugly secret. I am from Toledo, Ohio, birthplace of the infamous Fred 'Bonehead' Merkle."

Merkle promptly walked out.

The pain ran deep for Merkle. Stalker has a collection of photos of Merkle on display in his basement.

"Look, you can see the torture in his eyes," Stalker said. "Right after it happened, he lost his hair and weight. [During the playoff game] he was sitting in the dugout saying 'I'm sorry. It's my fault.'"

But was Merkle truly at fault? Keith Olbermann is among those who say no.

Olbermann, formerly of ESPN and now the host of "Countdown" on MSNBC, has been interested in Merkle's case for more than 30 years. He has proposed Sept. 23 be a national day of amnesty in Merkle's memory, but not because he did something wrong.

"I was struck by the finality of it," Olbermann said. "He does something everybody did, for their own safety, as a game ended. He was the first player on whom the rule was ever enforced and he never lived it down."

Indeed, the real goat might have been O'Day, the umpire. No less than Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem delivered a stinging indictment.

"Evers talked a great umpire into making the rottenest decision in the history of baseball," Klem said.

The damage, though, was done. Olbermann doubts Merkle will ever be vindicated.

"The goat story is still easier, and more compelling, than the story of the poor rookie victimized by a rule that was never enforced," Olbermann said.

As fate would have it, the Cubs will be in New York on Tuesday to play the Mets. Olbermann plans to attend the game.

"I have to be there," Olbermann said. "I've never believed the Cubs didn't curse themselves by playing that rule on poor Fred. [The Cubs have had] a century of bad luck, meaning something abysmal is likely to happen to the Cubs [on Tuesday], especially since somebody scheduled them to be in New York."

When Merkle retired in 1926, he was so bitter he wanted nothing to do with baseball. It wasn't until 1950 that he returned to a big league park.

Merkle had to be talked into attending an Old-Timers' Game at the Polo Grounds. Even after all these years, he was fearful of how the fans would treat him.

Perhaps the fans remembered the good things he did for the Giants, or perhaps they felt sorry for his plight, but they gave him a loud ovation.

"He had an impressive career," Stalker said. "That's what he should be remembered for."

Oh, if that were only the case. What happened 100 years ago Tuesday even had an impact on his final resting place.

Merkle once cracked, "I suppose when I die, they'll put on my tombstone, 'Here lies Bonehead Merkle.'"

They never got the chance. When he died in 1956 at the age of 67, he was buried in an unmarked grave.

Ed Sherman was a longtime sportswriter for the Chicago Tribune.